Just about every great novel showcases one or another liberal piety. Middlemarch shows how political change can never be made to benefit the poor unless the rich feel sufficiently guilty to lead the way. The great American novel, HuckleberryFinn, invites white Americans to ask how we managed to subjugate and terrorize millions of blacks and keep faith with the Sermon on the Mount and the Bill of Rights.
I won’t multiply examples. But suffice it to say, the novel’s leftward bent is so consistent and robust to force one to ask why the sentiments of the right are so absent from the novel. Novels are the books that ask why we are here, what we ultimately are up to, what it means to be human. Maybe there is something about these animating questions that bind the novel organically to the temperament of the left.
V.S. Naipaul is having none of this. I’ve just started reading his 1979 ABendintheRiver, which opens with a clarion call that comes unmistakeably from the right. Of course I don’t know how the book will end, but its opening sentence proclaims a world which is in no way amenable to liberal pieties. “The world is what it is,” Naipaul declares. Furthermore, it contains two kind of men–those who assert the power of their traditions and thus leave their mark, and those who go with the flow and are drowned in history’s tide. The latter man, Naipaul says, amounts to nothing, is nothing. Strong stuff.
Obviously I haven’t gotten to the bottom of ABendintheRiver yet. Naipaul’s antagonist, the ethnic-Indian trader Salim, may prove to be an unreliable narrator. Liberal pieties may still lurk in the distance. But for the moment, Naipaul’s novel is the most bracing kind of tonic for any serious political thinker–a capable challenger to one’s accepted doctrines. As Salim tries to revive a defunct trading post in interior east Africa, his life comes unmoored from the cosmopolitan society of Portuguese, Persians and Arabs that once hummed on the east African coast and made it what it was. Now, violent revolutions have freed African colonies and drained the polyglot coast of its sustaining cultural power. Salim begins to discover how fragile political order is, and how humans revert to older, possibly stronger traditions in the absence of it.
In TheBaronintheTrees, the novelist Italo Calvino has his 12-year old protagonist, Cosimo, resolutely refuse to eat what’s on his plate one day in 1767. Then the young nobleman’s rebellion goes somewhat over the top. Cosimo stomps out of the house, climbs a backyard oak and resolves never to come down again. He finds that he can travel for miles around his estate pouncing from tree to tree, and he lives in the forest canopy for the rest of his days.
The BaronintheTrees is a daring and luminous medtitation on the wild, innocent beauty of childhood, the world that children imagine and create for themselves. Like Mark Twain, Calvino stakes out the boundaries of this world and says, as an experiment, “No trespassing”: let us consider a life guided by the determination to resist the impositions of adulthood. This gesture clearly expresses an aethetic idea, but I propose that it also touches on a moral duty, the obligation to let kids be kids.
I was deeply struck this morning by this passage from early in Calvino’s book:
Cosimo’s first days in the trees had no goals or plans but were dominated only by the desire to know and possess that kingdom of his. He would have liked to explore it immediately to its farthest boundaries, study all the possibilities it offered, discover it tree by tree and branch by branch.
Ah, the sumptuous pointlessness of childhood. But is it really pointless? When I was a kid in the Ozarks I would grab the 10-gauge shotgun on winter days and hike through the woods “rabbit hunting.” I use the quotes because I rarely saw a rabbit and honestly can’t recall if I ever shot at one. I definitely shot at other things–usually trees, sometimes snowballs–but the thing was to be out and about, on my own doing something that didn’t suck quite as bad as the rest of adolescence. Looking back, I guess you could say I was answering a desire to “know and possess that kingdom” of mine.
In the spring and summer I would fish. There was a lake about a mile away, and I would walk to one of the hundreds of little inlets on it shoreline. Since the dam that formed the lake had only been built a few years before, the lake’s shallows were still choked with standing tress, submerged brushpiles and other irregularities that attracted crappie and bluegill by the hundreds, maybe thousands. The real fishing was to be done from a boat just on the other side of the trees and brushpiles, and I knew this. I suppose it was because of the water depth and where fish like to live, but, lacking a boat, I did my best to fish from the forested shore anyway. I don’t think I ever brought home enough fish for a full dinner, but what I did bring home I would dress on a stump by the woodpile and my mom would fry.
I wonder if kids do this kind of thing these days, if they even feel the itch, in Calvino’s words, to know and possess their kingdoms.
Journalists and child psychologists give us reason for pause. Children, they say, before they even form a perspective on the world, enter a virtual reality that is already prepared for them, coded in Silicon Valley and delivered through chatgroups and streaming video. There is no attraction to real fishing if you can just tap your tablet and start playing “Thrill of the Catch,” one of 54 free, online fishing games I found in a search this morning. No need to talk face-to-face with people who matter only marginally to you if you can stay constantly linked up to a chatgroup of your closest fellows, thumbs wagging away round the clock, unleashing one vitally important message after another.
I had to sit up and do some serious thinking about this issue a few weeks ago when I read an article in TheAtlantic that asked whether smartphones were destroying a generation of children. I won’t rehearse the article here in any detail: it claims that smart devices zombify kids and make what is alread a trying period in their lives even less likely to be a happy one. If you read the article and feel at all concerned by it, as I was, you should also read a response in PsychologyToday that critiques the Atlantic article’s arguments. Children, it says, are more resistant to zombification than we think and actually benefit in some ways from their interaction with smart devices.
As a committed empiricist, I think it is too early to start drawing conclusions about the long-term impact of indulging kids’ screen addictions. There is simply too much going on in that intimate embrace to comprehend it in a mere handful of studies, no matter how well done.
Still, casual observation is the beginning of empiricism, and if you have observed children with any interest at all in the last 10 years you cannot have failed to notice how thoroughly their screens absorb them. They are locked into an interaction (if that is the right word–it often looks very passive) that can last for hours. It takes real effort to break the spell. Whatever is going on there is very powerful. I will sound like an alarmist, but I think it is the better part of wisdom in these early days to ask if, by allowing Net World to stream so freely into our children’s lives, we are not robbing kids of a certain amount of creative autonomy, their natural desire to form a perspective on the world.
I of all people, believe humans can and should change. All species are adaptive, and we are more adaptive than most. At the bottom of my heart I am a Nietzschean, and I think creativity is the soul of bravery and, possibly, of wisdom. Humans should always be forging new paths to we-know-not-what. So whence my unease? Aren’t screen kids just being good Nietzscheans, forging their way to some novelty that is in no way devalued by the fact that I cannot discern its meaning?
Here is my best guess at what is wrong. Net World, the one mediated by all those screens, is already infused with an adult perspective before kids encounter it. After all, it’s created in Silicon Valley and Madison Avenue. It’s a consumerist matrix that threatens to rob childhood of its undiscovered nature and its not-yet-commodified beauties. Calvino, like Twain, touches on one of life’s most sacrosanct rules, that we ought to let kids be kids, primarily by letting them roam free. My concern today is that our technological bubble possibly violates that rule by denying kids their natural inclination to create and imagine their own realities–to roam free and take possession of their kingdoms. I hope I am wrong.
I read 112 books in 2017. I didn’t really set out to break 100; it just sort of happened. I followed no plan, just wandered from one engaging topic to another. It was a great way to spend the year.
This will be a long post. I say a little something about every book I read in 2017. Even friends and family might not make it through the whole thing, so let me say up front, while you are still paying attention: Thank you to my dear mom for being a big part of my great 2017. You taught me how to read way back when, and your Christmas present last year paid for many of the books I so enjoyed this year.
So just how much did I read, and what did I count as a book? A few of my reads were only novella-length essays, like “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” by Oscar Wilde and “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” by Richard Hofstadter. But a few were real honkers. The unforgettable AgainsttheDay by Thomas Pynchon topped 1,300 pages. Diarmaid McCullough’s massive Christianity: TheFirst3,000Years was, well, massive. And Norman Mailer outdid himself, literally, in TheExecutioner’sSong, with 1,000-pages of crystalline prose delivered entirely in the spare, bleak voices of his characters rather than his own heavily ornamented one. Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad epic LifeandFate topped 900 pages. Capitalinthe21stCentury went on toward 800 pages if you read all the charts and notes, which I did. Heavy stuff.
I bookended the year with a pair of low-culture romps. In January I read Guy Thorne’s unintentionally hilarious 1902 novel WhenItWasDark. It’s the story of how a conniving English Jew fakes some archaeological evidence to disprove the resurrection of Jesus, and people around the world suddenly revert to Satanic form, murdering, raping, going to bed without brushing their teeth and so forth. You know: chaos. In December I read Dan Brown’s Origin, which explores roughly the same theme of how the masses and their elite controllers might react once the news breaks that life has no supernatural origins.
I feel like all books change my life, at least in some small way, so that breathless appellation constantly threatens to wear thin. (How many times have you heard, “Read this book–it will change your life!”?) Still, I must say 12 books I read this year left a deep and lively impression on me, insinuating themselves into that constellation of other people’s ideas that I call my own, plagiarism be damned. Yes, I will say it: they changed my life. They were:
TheFireNextTime, by James Baldwin. Baldwin argues convincingly that America has a white problem, not a black one. A Copernican revolution in thinking about race in America, it changes all our bearings.
IWillBearWitness, by Victor Klemperer. A Jewish professor of German Literature records the rise of Nazism as seen from his home in Dresden. A deeply instructive portrait of populism.
AgainsttheDay, by Thomas Pynchon. In this fantastic roman à clef, a group of all-American boys traveling the pre-WWI globe in a dirigible discover the world is run, or at least haunted, by destructive powers. The richest story-telling I’ve ever read.
SlaughterhouseFive, by Kurt Vonnegut. Americans have never witnessed on our home soil how utterly authoritarianism can blot out any political idea, no matter how enlightened or progressive. Vonnegut sets his novel in the 1945 ruins of defeated Germany and invites us to abandon our naivitee (and laugh grimly).
TheCaptive Mind, by Czeslaw Milosz. An intellectually thrilling essay on the various ways independent thinkers bent and sometimes broke under the authoritarianism of Warsaw Pact Poland. Universal in scope, a beacon of free thinking.
Lincoln, by Gore Vidal. Far and away the best of Vidal’s seven-part American Chronicles series. Vidal renders Lincoln as human and therefore much, much more heroic and captivating than the flawless saint depicted in our schoolbooks.
Capitalinthe21stCentury, by Thomas Piketty. Piketty explains the macroeconomics behind the world’s ever-widening wealth gap. Spoiler alert: trickle-down doesn’t work; or perhaps like communism, it hasn’t worked yet.
TotheFinlandStation, by Edmund Wilson. Never have writers and philosophers influenced history so directly as they did between the French and Communist revolutions. Wilson catches the whole spectacle, in fascinating intellectual detail. One of the best books I’v ever read in the history of ideas.
Libra, by Don Delillo. Delillo’s novelistic version of Lee Harvey Oswald’s life tells a story our country is still absorbing–how the JFK assassination “broke the back” of the American century and taught us anything is possible. Stands up to any 10 competitors for the great American novel.
PoliticalFictions, by Joan Didion. Didion is a supremely cool and sly political observer; she is also an effortlessly great writer. These essays spanning from Bush I to Bush II tell how how America’s ruling class has come to wall itself off so thoroughly from the ruled even while it justifies a casual domination of their lives.
TheExecutioner’sSong, by Norman Mailer. Many societies cheapen human life, but America seems to do it in a way that reliably produces violence–especially gun violence–as its main side effect. The story of Gary Gilmore, told without mercy.
LifeandFate, by Vasily Grossman. Although usually compared to Tolstoy’s WarandPeace, to me this is the Dostoevskan novel of the 20th century. Raises a monumental philosophical question for anyone living after World War Two: how can we take ourselves morally seriously after the crematorium and the gulag? These things were built by people who thought they were striving mightily for humanity’s good.
Here’s the rundown of all the other books I read:
The100-YearOldManWhoClimbedOuttheWindowandDisappeared, by Jonas Jonasson. Roaring good fun; a light comic novel balanced by a deft command of recent cultural history.
Nutshell, by Ian McEwan. A fetus discovers his mom and her good-for-nothing boyfriend are plotting to murder the unborn baby’s father. Set in contemporary London; deep existential themes treated with a masterfully light touch.
TheQuietAmerican, by Graham Greene. A jaundiced British depiction of American recklessness and naivitee in 1950s Indochina.
Europe’sAngryMuslims, by Robert Leiken. Leiken describes the political and cultural roots of contemporary Europe’s alienated Muslim communities. Great journalism; detailed and free of the cant this subject usually arouses.
LivingintheEndTimes, by Slovoj Zizek. The manic Slovenian philosopher uses the failures of both communism and capitalism to argues that barbarity might be humanity’s default setting. Dense. Zizek assumes you know almost as much Hegel as he does. I do not.
TheOldDevils, by Kingsley Amis. Amis at his subtlest. He explores the meaning of aging, friendship and identity. Everyone drinks an inhuman amount.
BrightonRock, by Graham Greene. This book gave me my first indication that, for such a celebrated novelist, Greene is not always great. Demonic teenage thug rises to become crime boss of English seaside resort town. Greene clumsily overlays some Catholic superstitions on an instantly forgettable story.
TheSecondPlane, by Martin Amis. I read this collection of miraculously good essays about 9/11 while I was staying in the shadow of the One World Trade Center last February. Destined to outlast all the high-pitched editorializing and stern “analysis” that 9/11 sparked.
ArmiesoftheNight, by Norman Mailer. Mailer gets drunk and participates in the 1968 march on the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam war. Still worth reading.
TheFight, by Norman Mailer. A slightly novelistic presentation of Muhammed Ali’s heavyweight championship fight against George Foreman in Zaire in 1974. Deeply engaged, creative journalism that shines light on an American icon.
Candide, by Voltaire. What can I say? There are about a dozen short classics that I read every year or two. Voltaire’s devastating critique of theodicy is one of them. We should all tend our gardens.
DarknessatNoon, by Arthur Kostler. So far in human history, every ideological revolution (except ours) has consumed its own loyalists. This is Koestler’s shattering depiction of a week in the life of the 1937 Soviet show trials, which did just that. How effortessly the communist rulers betrayed the revolution, turning white to black and up to down. I read this one every couple years too.
NotesfromUnderground, by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky explores the moveable distinction between individuality and madess, principle and spite. A study in human agency.
“The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” by Oscar Wilde. Political pornography of the highest, most enjoyable order. Of course socialism cannot do all the wonderful things Wilde thinks it can do, but as he famously asserts, any worthwhile map of politics must include a utopia.
TheChildinTime, by Ian McEwan. This book will break your heart in several ways. A self-absorbed London writer loses his 3-year old daughter to a kidnapping. He then loses his wife to grief and his once-worldly best friend to a reverse-dementia that pulls him back into a state of childhood. Shattering.
TheJungle, by Upton Sinclair. This is also one of the books that have changed my life, but I didn’t mention it as such since this is the third time I’ve read it. Explosive. You cannot read it without reflecting on the state of wage slavery today.
TheFestivalofInsignificance, by Milan Kundera. A breezy Nietzschean meditation on how we create ourselves and see ourselves in the mirror of other people.
TheCementGarden, by Ian McEwan. McEwan seems to be this generation’s Nabakov, writing about the extreme boundaries of human morality and reminding us how differently everyone negotiates them. Suburban London kids encase their dead mom in concrete because they don’t want to be put in an orphanage.
TheFutureofanIllusion, by Sigmund Freud. Why did humanity conjure up the idea of an angry sky god as its ruler? Freud says it was so we could have someone to petition rather than just dealing with the impersonal, unanswering forces of nature. This illusion, he says, will eventually fade. My fourth or fifth reading of this classic.
Encounter, by Milan Kundera. Some of Kundera’s best essays on the meaning of the novel.
Outsiders, by Howard Becker. A classic in sociology. By dispassionately observing social deviants, Becker discovers (1) non-deviants are deviants too, and (2) the criteria for judging deviance are trumped up by the members of an in-group with the liveliest interest in marginalizing the out-group. Haters gonna hate, and they get a jump on their adversary by making the rules.
TheComfortofStrangers, by Ian McEwan. A deeply implausible S&M horror story set in Venice.
TheWorldasWillandRepresentation, by Arthur Schopenhauer. If you read this to get at the roots of Nietzsche, as I did, just skip to Nietzsche instead. Bloated and off-target. Read TheWisdomofLife if you must read Schopenhauer.
FirstLove, LastRites, by Ian McEwan. McEwan’s first book, a collection of dark, id-driven love stories and, again, Nabakovian reflections on the boundaries of human morality.
NotesofaNativeSon, by James Baldwin. Essential reading in American letters. Baldwin locates his own ideas with respect to Richard Wright’s. Baldwin thought Wright was powerful but profligate.
TheRebel, by Albert Camus. Together with Richard Rorty’s Contingency, IronyandSolidarity, this is probably the most important book in my life. A plangent hymn to the human situation: we are born alone and live without a blueprint, under an indifferent sky. The only rebellion that matters is the one against meaninglessness.
TheMythofSisyphus, by Camus. Despite the absurdity of our condition, it is reasonable to struggle for happiness and find solidarity with others.
TheMagicofReality, by Richard Dawkins. I told myself I would read more science books this year, but I didn’t. This was a worthy exception. Dawkins describes a world whose naturalistic explanations are far more spellbinding than magical myths.
ThePowerandtheGlory, by Graham Greene. I didn’t get it. While I understand Greene’s conviction that ministers of grace are fallen sinners too (this is an old trope from Kierkegaard), his story of a drunken Mexican priest standing up (unsteadily) for the Church just isn’t convincing. The things that Greene took seriously are baffling.
NobodyKnowsMyName, by James Baldwin. Part of my lightning education in Baldwin this year. A portrait of the writer as social critic.
TheGreenMan, by Kingsley Amis. A distracted, middle-aged English innkeeper in the 1970s discovers his inn is haunted. He combats the offending demon while managing to talk his wife into a threesome. Only one of these undertakings goes well.
36ArgumentsfortheExistenceofGod, by Rebecca N. Goldstein. This novel tries to argue that religious identity can still be a good thing even without its underlying metaphysics. This gauzy message is underecut, though, by the the main characters’ knock-down arguments against the existence of God.
NightWork, by Thomas Glavinic. This was the most gripping novel I read this year. The antagonist wakes up on a clear summer day in contemporary Vienna to discover that every last human being has disappeared from the earth. A powerful, haunting existentialist story.
Ignorance, by Milan Kundera. Kundera takes up one of his most reliable themes, exile. The world insists on seeing people uprooted by politics as victims, but for Kundera, exile is just another whim of fate to be embraced, like one’s personal appearance or place of birth. Explores the idea that time and chance are worthy of determining our fate.
TheStranger, by Albert Camus. Another classic that I re-read regularly. Camus reminds us of the enormous, lethal power we humans wield in our authority to write and enforce laws. Many of us comfort ourselves with the myth that our death-dealing laws get written on our hearts by a heavenly author. No, we make them up, and it is the most serious thing we do.
OnTyranny, by Timothy Snyder. This brilliant little book links Trump’s tin-pot, reality-TV populism to much darker currents in 20th century history, and tells how to resist it. Snyder, by the way, is no talking-head journalist. He is America’s preeminent historian of 20th century political atrocities.
AnimalFarm, by George Orwell. A miracle. Orwell tells a spare, grim allegory of how the socialist instinct for humanism is so easily turned into authoritarianism. I read it every year.
RogueLawyer, by John Grisham. Yes, I had some fun this year. An idealistic defense attorney makes himself at home on the seedier side of life so he can better help the marginalized and unsympathetic poor.
Vineland, by Thomas Pynchon. This sprawling novel of northern California weed counterculture was probably the first serious work of fiction to take note of the crypto-authoritarianism loosed upon America by the avuncular Reagan. A masterpiece. Introduces the phrase, “Grab them by the pussy.”
1984, by Orwell. The bible of anyone who hopes that love and freedom will outlast bigotry and stupidity. Read it often and dare to ask yourself just how much you, too, love Big Brother.
TheShadowLine, by Joseph Conrad. In a sense, all of Conrad’s seafaring novels are about a man who tests himself against overwhelming forces of nature and discovers what he’s made of. In this one, the hero grasps the wisdom of accepting the world as it is. I guess that always happens in Conrad too.
Comrades!, by Robert Service. A clear, accessible history of the communist world movement from its roots in 19th-century European social democracy to its denouement in the fall of the USSR.
TheWhite Castle, by Orhan Pamuk. The only disappointing novel I’ve ever read by Pamuk. The story of a Venetian scholar imprisoned and emulated by an Ottoman prince, it explores one of Pamuk’s favorite themes, identity, but it stays stuck in disorienting plot devices. Read TheBlackBook instead, Pamuk’s masterpiece.
AchievingOurCountry, by Richard Rorty. This book was the Rosetta Stone of my reading experience this year. It unlocked several resounding, compelling new themes about democracy and freedom in almost everything else I read. I kept going back to it and probably read certain passage nine or ten times. Buy it.
What’sWongwiththeWorld?, by G.K. Chesterton. So what is wrong with the world? Answer: It’s not medieval enough. Chesterton seems to write while he is blind drunk, and I’ve found I can only read him when I return the favor. Fat Bastard says one offensively stupid thing after another.
HeartofDarkness, by Joseph Conrad. The Nietzschean heart of this novella is that we all create ourselves: there is no divine plan for what it means to be human. Kurtz’s famous horror is his reaction to this cosmic aloneness.
Arguably, by Christopher Hitchens. Reading Hitchens’ literary criticism is, for me, like eating a big, velvety chocolate cake that magically never fattens one’s wasteline or produces feelings of over-indulgence. This is possibly his best, published as he was dying in 2011.
TheWarAgainstCliche, by Martin Amis. Did I just say Hitch was my favorite critic? Amis, Hitch’s best friend, sometimes makes it too hard to choose. It is highly unfair that Amis is such a good novelist AND critic. A delightful, ingenius collection of literary reflections, although I disagree with Amis about DonQuixote, which he found long and trying.
TheParanoidStyleinAmericanPolitics, by Richard Hofstadter. Way back in 1964 Hostadter assayed the reactionary right’s tendency to view any progressive political agenda (or anything else they disliked) as evidence of a conspiracy.
Kaputt, by Curzio Malaparte. One of the most unusual books I’ve ever read. An Italian pro-fascist journalist undergoes a change of heart as he tours the Eastern Front in World War Two and reflects lyrically and critically on the demoniac heart of Nazism.
TheUnbearableLightnessofBeing, by Milan Kundera. Another one I read every few years. The problem with existence is not that it’s too heavy, says Kundera; it is too light. We have ony one life; without the prospect of repeatibility, we face the fearsome task of trying to get it “right” the first time. Einmalistkeinmal.
Democracy:AnAmericanNovel, by Henry Adams. A widowed New York socialite moves to Washington and tries to figure out what makes our government work. It’s corruption.
IllFarestheLand, by Tony Judt. As he was dying of ALS in 2010, the celebrated historian Tony Judt posed some hard questions about which way our democracy was headed. We have abandoned the welfare of our citizens as a national priority, he says, trading it for wealth worship and militarism. He might have added general jackassery.
EverydayDrinking, by Kingsley Amis. Amis reflects on the drinking life, sometimes hilariously, always based on assiduous research, or, as he called it, “unsleeping vigilance.”
EducationandDemocracy, by John Dewey. One of Dewey’s most powerful works. Makes the unlikely-sounding case that education is not “for” anything except habituating the human mind’s capacity to add new experiences to old. When the concept of education is left so radically open-ended, minds are enriched and democracy flourishes.
TakeaGirlLikeYou, by Kingsley Amis. One of the most disappointing novels I read this year. Amis can usually make swinish and parochial behavior sound fall-down funny, but this deeply unsympathetic story of bad-boy-meets-nice-girl falls flat. Turgid, exceptionally bad.
TheTragedyofGreatPowerPolitics, by John Mearsheimer. In miraculously simple terms, Mearsheimer explains how great powers are locked into a perpetual arms race for ever-better offensive capabilities. We live in a world where the most secure country is not necessarily the best defended, but rather the apex predator. Sobering.
Veil, by Bob Woodward. Reagan empowers William Casey, the most activist CIA chief in history, to fight several covert wars of questionable strategic value and demonstrably vile morality. We called it containment. Reagan napped through the whole thing, bless his heart.
Slowness, by Milan Kundera. Do we know what we are doing by speeding up human life with technology, mindlessly packing more and more of everything into our personal histories? Kundera modestly suggests, no, we do not. A beautiful, allegorical novel that recommends we savor our humanity rather than expiating it through quick, easy thrills.
Cat’sCradle, by Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut examines with warmth and humor our need to create gods and religions. His made-up “Bokonism” is very nearly as silly as a real religion.
Everyman, by Philp Roth. Roth reflects unflinchingly on the process of aging. To slowly shed our youth is to enter another country.
YouShouldHaveLeft, by Daniel Kehlmann. Mitteleuropa is still producing novelists capable of haunting us with the everyday. Kehlmann tells of a harried screenwriter and family man retreating to the Austrian Alps to knock out a quick TV script. An unnamed menace awaits in the mountains. It may be ordinary life, or possibly a demon from another world.
BreakfastofChampions, by Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut’s most subversive novel challenges us to spot the difference between everyday irrationality and raging lunacy. Done with sympathy, as always.
ThePanda’sThumb, by Stephen Jay Gould. Gould excels in using the cul de sacs and whimsical offshoots of evolution to prove the determinative power of natural selection.
JohnBrown: Abolitionist, by David Reynolds. A monument to the man who saw so clearly that the historic crime of slavery would be reversed only by violence. Brown’s appalled sense of American hypocrisy unhinged him and turned him into a holy warrior.
Flashpoints: TheEmergingCrisisinEurope, by George Friedman. In this surprisingly thoughtful book, a celebrated futurist tries to answer “the most important question in the world”: Will Europe experience total war again? He’s not optimistic.
Jailbird, by Kurt Vonnegut. In this Watergate roman à clef, an ex-con political operative exposes the commercial-industrial sector’s increasing domination of government in America. Brought to you by the RAMJAC corporation. A wicked delight.
TheLastEmpire: Essays1992–2000, by Gore Vidal. Weighs up the state of the union during the Clinton years. Vidal is a priceless political observer. With Roman hardness–a comliment he once paid to Edmund Wilson–Gore insists on telling the only real story of politics: who spent how much on what.
OnViolence, by Hanna Arendt. The German philosopher breaks down the modern state’s preferred method of controlling dissenters.
A Clergyman’s Daughter, by George Orwell. In this, his best novel after 1984 and AnimalFarm, Orwell explains that religosity is more a mental climate than a firm set of beliefs. The fog lifts on the mind of Dorothy, an English country girl who just isn’t having it anymore.
SongofMyself, by Walt Whitman. Read this novella-length poem to discover just how radically free Amreicans once were and still can be. We are a nation that thrives on novelty, diversity, and open-endedness. We don’t belong to bigots or fearmongers.
FallingMan, by Don Delillo. One of the small tragedies of 9/11 was the abundance of second- and third-rate soul searching it inspired among the scribbling class. (John Updike’s Terrorist, for example, is outstandingly bad.) But Delillo, an incomparable master, sanctifies 9/11, catches it right in the middle of American life. Transcendant.
TheBattleofBlairMountain, by Robert Shogan. Shogan narrates a disappointlingly boring account of America’s largest labor uprising. King Coal wins.
TheUnwinding, by George Packer. All literate Americans should read this book. It traces the subterranean currents of labor, finance and politics over the last 40 years that have come together to deny more and more people access to the American dream.
OnLiberty, by John Stuart Mill. This short book sets out the principle at the foundation of American political culture: individual sovereignty. Neither government nor society should try to rule any private thought, speech or act that does not harm other individuals.
DemocraticVistas, by Walt Whitman. America’s poet writes prose. Here he expands John Stuart Mill’s liberalism into a concept of American individualism. Americans, Whitman urges, should cultivate new, inventive tastes and should boldly seek out untested life-situations so they can create ever-new selves. Whitman is the most radical American who ever lived.
ZeroK, by Don Delillo. America’s Thomas Mann explores humankind’s obsession with our ultimate fate, and our desire to control it. Delillo’s contribution to this theme is his ability to reflect the perspective of rich, vain Americans and their leading role in the technological “anti-aging” movement.
Orthodoxy, by G.K. Chesterton. I don’t even know why I read Chesterton anymore. All his books have the same purpose: to persuade you that you, too, are a repressed Christian Medievalist, just waiting to be re-awoken to common sense and something he keeps calling “wild romance.” The most offputting thing about Chesterton is how his bluffly corporeal Christianity accords so nicely with his native tendencies for gluttony, cupidity and drunkeness. A truly repulsive man.
SelfRelianceandOtherEssays, by Ralph Waldo Emerson. A classic that all Americans should read, but Emerson’s transcendentalist style is stuffy and abstract.
TheColdWarandtheIncomeTax, by Edmund Wilson. All Wilson ever really wanted to do was read literature and write criticism. After the IRS went after him for unpaid taxes in 1953, though, he felt compelled to write this short denunciation of America’s tax-and-arm government. One of the beauties of the national security state we got in 1947 was its silent imposition of a permanent tax scheme that Washington had always reserved for the special demands of wartime. If special circumstances justify special powers, can it come as any kind of surprise that, after Truman, we have always been in a national crisis of some kind?
Burr, by Gore Vidal. Vidal reconstructs the American revolution from the rascally perspective of Thomas Jefferson’s vice president, Aaron Burr. The inventive, resilient Burr was uniquely placed to witness George Washington’s military incompetence and Jefferson’s political hypocrisy. Gore has Burr dish on both, of course.
PlayerPiano, by Kurt Vonnegut. In his excellent first novel, Vonnegut prophesies about the ultimate alienation of labor–the massive elimination of meaningful jobs by knowledge work and automation. Timely and deeply insightful.
Nausea, by Jean Paul Sartre. Somehow, this ur-existentialist novel was much better when I read it as an undergrad. Fascinating puzzles and insights still abound in it, but this meditation on the contingency of existence just seems muddy to me when compared with Camus’ pitch-perfect treatment of the same theme.
TheAlteration, by Kingsley Amis. Just read the crystalline first chapter of this alternate-world novel and see if you can put it down. The forces of tyranny have won World War Two, and Himmler and Beria have been installed as cardinals of a unified church. The main action turns on Rome’s plan to have 10-year old Hubert Anvil “altered” to preserve his beautiful soprano voice. One of Amis’s best.
“The Machine Stops,” by E.M. Forster. This novella-length short story from 1909 predicts the invention of a worldwide communications network uncannily similar to the Internet. What goes well beyond the uncanny–and is in fact deeply unsettling–is Forster’s depiction of people worshipping and abasing themselves to the Machine, even when its effects are clearly dehumanizing.
1876, by Gore Vidal. Vidal has the coldest eye for politics in all of literature. Here he recounts how pervasive corruption was in the U.S. government at the time of our centenerary. Vidal gives much needed instruction in the moral ambiguity of political leaders, even heroes of our cherished history such as Grant.
WillYouPleaseBeQuietPlease?, by Raymond Carver. Bleakness has never been a defining American trait. Ours is a country of promise, struggle, hope, vanity, money, motion. Even losers are on the go or on the make. Carver explodes this myth. This devastating collection of short stories depicts lower-middle class Americans beaten down by an enemy they cannot name.
SoDamnMuchMoney, by Robert Kaiser. Kaiser delivers a deeply revealing profile of one of Washington’s most successful lobbying firms. Recounts the numerous ways that influence peddling has become a normal part of governance in our country.
TheGoldenAge, by Gore Vidal. Another fascinating installation in Vidal’s American chronicles series. Argues that FDR stage-managed America’s entrance into World War Two and Truman cashed in our postwar standoff with communism to create a permanent national security state.
TheMoralObligationtoBeIntelligent, by Lionel Trilling. I’ve long wanted to read Trilling’s TheLiberalImagination. While browsing for it, I had to laugh out loud at the audacity of this title and then of course had to read the book. I was expecting something as brilliant and rousing as Milosz’s TheCaptiveMind, but this collection of essays is dry and dated.
NotesonDemocracy, by H.L. Mencken. Although I diasgree thoroughly with many of Mencken’s basic assumptions (for example, that there exists a “lower order” of humans), his attacks on yokelism, puritanism and mob politics in this book are pure gold.
The Baron in the Trees, by Italo Calvino. Twelve-year old Cosimo resolutely refuses to eat what’s on his plate one day in 1767. Then he stomps out of the house, climbs a backyard oak tree and resolves never to come down again. The essence of childhood, Calvino muses, lies in the tenacity to be oneself. It is an idea that ennobles adulthood as well.
A Bend in the River, by V.S. Naipual. An amazing novel that describes the life of Salim, a trader who watches as various kinds of political order come and go in east Africa. This book upends my perception that the political left has a monopoly on good ideas for novels.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. Harari does himself a huge favor by not calling this astounding book what it really is, a Nietzschean account of civilization. Honesty would have hurt his sales. Humankind’s genetic endowment, Harari argues, is robustly adapted for mindlessness–lifetime upon lifetime of hunting and gathering on the steppe or in the bush. After the invention of abstract ideas, though, we began to make up really interesting things for which we are probably not adapted, like laws, rights, and political order. Where is it all going? We don’t know, but it is moving very fast.
This is an essay about what it means to be American. It came to me in three parts. Each part is guided by a group of intellectual heroes; I follow their ideas progressively further out onto a limb.
In the first part I stayed comfortably close to the core of America’s self-image. Our country is a place where one can think, say or do whatever one likes so long as one’s thoughts, words or acts do not harm others’ rights to do the same. Call it the attitude of “live-and-let-live” if you like. I tried to give it some of the heft it deserves by presenting it as John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle.” We Americans can rightfully claim to have a genius for it, I believe. No matter where you come from, if you land in America, you can expect others to yield a broad swathe for your private goals, tastes and interests. “God bless;” “Live long and prosper;” “Whatever turns your crank;” these are the kind of thing we say when we witness someone taking a path to happiness that differs from ours. “Let a thousand flowers bloom.” That’s another thing we say.
So far so good. Except for a few theocratic dinosaurs such as Robert Bork, almost all Americans believe in the harm principle as Mill frames it. Bork, on the other hand, believes it is possible to harm others simply by holding an opinion they find distasteful. If you have any sympathy for this idea, it is worth bearing in mind that Bork’s puritanical concept of harm matches that of the Muslim clerics who incited the deadly riots against the infamous Mohammed cartoons in 2005 and 2006. Muslim outrage was legitimized, they said, by the mere expression of an offending opinion. Parties of God tend to think like this whether they’re Muslim, Christian or Jewish. Not for nothing was the Christian conservative William Bennett’s 1998 book attacking moral tolerance called TheDeathofOutrage. (If you want to dig deeper into the new theocrats’ position, you can find it in Bork’s 1996 SlouchingTowardsGomorrah:ModernLiberalismandAmericanDecline and his 1997 TheTemptingofAmerica:ThePoliticalSeductionoftheLaw.)
In the second part of my essay I argued that nonconformity is, if not a defining American trait, then a highly desirable one and one to which great Americans urge us. America should be a big country populated by lots of different kinds of individuals free to do their own thing. This idea is based in an argument begun by John Stuart Mill and amplified by Walt Whitman and John Dewey that says we are better off following our own private ambitions, no matter how eccentric, than aligning our goals with common opinion. I think of this as the “diversity principle”: we all benefit if each individual boldly and creatively pursues a life experiment that is informed by thoughts, perceptions and interests that are uniquely her own. This idea is also at the core of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s most famous essay, “On Self Reliance.”
I think there might be a temptation to see this idea simply as “rugged idividualism,” an already established American trope, but that is not quite what I (or rather Whitman and Dewey) have in mind. Rugged individualism, as I understand it, tells a one-sided story about the most desirable human destiny, one in which the individual struggles mightily against obstacles, overcoming them but leaving them intact for the next adventurer to confront and surmount. In my idea of the diversity principle, though, the effect of many different individuals creatively confronting established problems actually impacts the institutions of social control that make up the obstacles in the first place. Pioneers change the very landscape; they don’t just navigate it. The mere “rugged individual” may win great moral victories, but, as a lone actor who rides into the sunset of personal heroism, he contributes to no larger project of altering the framework in which future lives will assert new kinds of individuality.
To take one example of what I would mean by a “diversity pioneer,” when gays in America started experimenting with queerness as an identity marker, the trend could have plausibly been seen as an exercise in “mere” rugged individualism–lone actors making a principled assault on the status quo. Their collective effect over time, though, tells a different, and more interesting story of social change. Today, we can see how, in many parts of America, queerness has helped shift the status quo to open up new vistas for expanding personal freedom. Things that used to be barriers for gays (primarily the expectation that they strictly keep their identities secret) were dissolved by experiments in queerness (among other things, of course). These days, at least in big cities, people whose idea of the good life implicates a central role for gayness need not start where their fellow travelers did in, say, the 1970s, closeted and stigmatized. They can launch newer, bolder life experiments starting from a higher level of liberty. (The level at which straights tend to start any life experiment.)
This idea that freedom surges forward through diverse life experimentation–and that it is a good thing even if we cannot see where it is all going–is very much what Emerson, Whitman and Dewey had in mind when, through their writings, they encouraged Americans to follow their own lights. Our national destiny, if we have one, should be an adventure that invites all comers.
So far, my consideration of what it means to be American is all fair weather and optimism. We are a great people because we have won key successes embodying certain abstract principles that arc toward freedom. We are a nation built on a philosophy. As a philosopher, I like that.
Philosophies, though, never have the last word. Real humans do. They populate our history, define our dreams, betray our secret sins. And so I come to the third and hardest part of this essay. What I am about to say may cause flinching, but it is by no means meant to debase our identity as a just, freedom-loving people. If we are to move forward, we must be able to take pride in our ideals no matter how imperfectly we have pursued them or how far we have fallen short of them up till this point. We must, as Richard Rorty argues, craft a national narrative that acknowledges our shortcomings without rendering us incapacitated for reform. We must still be able to hold our heads high enough to see the good country we wish to achieve.
But we will never do this, I am convinced, if we insist, generation after generation, on basing our national image in a set of orthodox myths that are clearly false and sanitized of painful historical facts. We are a freedom-loving nation but one founded on an unstated ideology of racial supremacy. Our founding fathers owned slaves; Lincoln, the great emancipator, viewed blacks as inferior even as he led a war to free them. Even with the Civil War half won, he beseeched America’s blacks to return to Africa, where he thought they belonged. Our growing country’s competitive advantage as a rising mercantile power on the world stage was secured by the use of cost-free slave labor. This point calls for some bluntness: the auction block and whipping post made us powerful and, by extension, “great.”
In fact, it is hard to avoid the more general conclusion drawn by Gore Vidal that our country climbed to “greatness” on the back of a series of race wars. Slavery was its own kind of war. Manifest Destiny, the notion on which our country’s westward expansion proceded, was enabled by a genocidal war against Native Americans, accompanied by the drawn-out, almost casual conquest of Mexican powers who refused to sell their land. The wage-enslavement of Chinese railroad workers enabled our final push for a land empire. After we encountered our country’s “natural” boundary at the Pacific coastline, we were persuaded by Britain to keep going and to conquer the Philippines. Britain’s own colonial glory fading, she convinced us the fate of the Pacific’s colored peoples were a moral burden that needed taken up by the white man. And we took it up. Hadn’t our whole history prepared us to rule people of color?
Even the least literate American is aware of these facts. But he is just as likely to have imbibed the official attitude that goes with them: the past is gone, and we Americans live in the present, our vision and vital energies stretched out toward the future. Henry Ford is the most famous protagonist of this attitude: “History is bunk!” he said.
We Americans do not dwell unprofitably on recriminations against our forefathers, who struggled heroically to build our nation and, as Theodore Roosevelt eulogized, “dare[d] mighty things, . . . even though checkered by failure.” We, mere observers, owe our allegiance to their sweat and blood, not to the grievances of history’s forgotten actors tossed in the wake of titanic great deeds. Thomas Jefferson, on this view of things, must be remembered for calling down the very voice of God to declare the world’s first republic of free and equal citizens. How he regarded–and treated–his own African slaves, including his concubine Sally Hemmings, is mere “bunk,” real history’s effluvium, which we simply must get over.
Countries great and small create their historical narratives through a process of forgetting, Milan Kundera wrote. The ugly, less useable parts of a nation’s story must, in a certain sense, be left out if that country’s citizens are to keep faith in a dignified national purpose. Historical static is mentally removed from the airwaves so we can hear only the clear, sweet signal of our national myths. And a country as consequential as our must do a prodigious amount of forgetting to tune into this signal. We are, according to our myths, not just a decent society, but a model, a light to the rest of the world.
But our studied ignorance of the past is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it is highly useful for preserving national pride, a necessary condition for political action. If we were to hang our heads as low as our crimes against principle and humanity demand, we would never be able to raise them and gaze on the American promise.
On the other hand, though, our wilful blindness makes it hard for our moral creditors to take us politically seriously. How can we be trusted to act in the best interest of all our citizens if our national narrative is constructed around a blind spot cultivated precisely to ignore the interests of those most harmed by our past crimes? I think this undischarged moral debt is what the historian John Hope Franklin had in mind when he wrote, “If the house is to be set in order, one cannot begin with the present; he must begin with the past.”
For those who have followed me this far out on to the limb, you have probably noted that I slipped unannounced into applying the first-person plural “we” only to America’s ruling class where I must surely have meant to speak for all Americans. This is, after all, an essay about what it means to be American pure and simple, not what it means to be a member of its Leitkultur. Actually, though, this is the rub.
This “we” sneaked into my thoughts the same way it showed up in the Declaration of Independence, with the best of intentions. It purports to represent all people who hold certain admirable truths to be self-evident about human beings–that freedom, dignity and equality are our rightful condition. But in reality it refers only to an elite group of professional experts who laid down the law of our land and the heirs of that elite tradition. Our country is founded on abstract, universal principles, but our history is an unbroken narrative of the callous, flagrant violation of those principes by the very class that claims the closest allegiance to them–the political elite. If there is a discharging of moral burdens to be done before our house can be set in order, this is the class that must lead it, and this is why the “we” in my essay applies to them (or us, as the case may be).
I admit that, even as I approach the climax of my sermon, I am pussyfooting, holding back. This is probably because I feel unqualified to say what I think needs to be said next. Luckily, it has already been said, and much better than I can manage it. The third principle of being American, as far as I am concerned is to refuse to treat white supremacy as an incidental distraction from our history and instead to face it front-on as a central fact of our history. It is to take seriously this moral indictment, laid down by one of America’s greatest essayists, James Baldwin:
The American Negro has the great advantage of having never believed the collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, that American men are the world’s most direct and virile, that American women are pure. Negroes know far more about white Americans than that; it can almost be said, in fact, that they know about white Americans what parents—or, anyway, mothers—know about their children, and that they very often regard white Americans that way. And perhaps this attitude, held in spite of what they know and have endured, helps to explain why Negroes, on the whole, and until lately, have allowed themselves to feel so little hatred. The tendency has really been, insofar as this was possible, to dismiss white people as the slightly mad victims of their own brainwashing.
. . . [A]nd this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.
Baldwin, clearly, is a pessimist. He is convinced that our brainwashing, our myths, our careful cultivation of ignorance keep us from seeing the truth–keep us from wanting to see the truth, a much more serious condition. But I am an optimist, and I think it is possible to change the attitude that caused Baldwin to despair, the refusal to confront white supremacy and the myths that support it.
The real human voice–the one that gainsays philosophical principles–that has so far had the final say on who we are is the voice of unacknowledged white supremacy. As Americans, we owe it to ourselves to re-examine our history and to stop cultivating the ignorance that lets us so easily adopt this voice as if it were an inevitable, abstract force of history, as if it were, say, the disembodied voice of the principles written down by Thomas Jefferson. Those principles surely still belong to us, but we must actively claim them, and we must do this by taking up James Baldwin’s stinging challenge that we do not even want to know our past.
Country preachers often add a quiet denouement to a ringing sermon. I don’t know if I succeeded to ring, but I find I can’t resist the quiet afterword. I grew up listening to country preachers, and I think many of their habits are worth keeping.
If you wish to feel out the contours of the chastized American liberal, the person who feels his country and its animating ideas are truly great even as the ruling class veers this way and that away from those ideas–in short, if you want to see an illuminating example of the post-Baldwin elitist–you can find that character appearing throughout the novels of Kurt Vonnegut. With wonderful good humor, Vonnegut performs the same service for America that Thomas Mann and Günter Grass did for Germany. He explains what it means to be a privileged member of a civilization that is automatically of great historical consequence (however lowly one’s personal stature within it) and to take in stride the fact that we did dreadful things along the way to becoming so consequential. Taking such things in stride is not to erase them, of course; it is to acknowledge you can face them and still keep your head high. Vonnegut’s novels envision a kind of moral re-orientation that I believe could be uniquely American, if we heed our better angels.